Welcome to Jugiong: population 222. Until the weekend, that is, when it feels more like 3 million. And that's not counting Hollywood actor Matt Damon, who turned up on the Anzac Day weekend and grabbed a coffee in the main street (there is really only one street).
If ever there was a story about a little town that was bypassed by the big highway and fell off the map, only to bounce back loud and proud, this is it. Jugiong stretches along the banks of the Murrumbidgee River on Wiradjuri country, 338 kilometres down the Hume from Sydney. Twenty minutes short of Gundagai, it's close to the halfway mark to Melbourne; a ridiculously picturesque little pit-stop that grew. And grew and grew.
Lunch platters at Long Track Pantry, Jugiong. Photo: Dee Kramer/Destination NSW
A food-lover's fun park
Jugiong's revival began in 2006 when Juliet Robb and family restored the old general store and opened a food store and cafe called The Long Pantry. Cue motorists immediately indicating left and turning off the highway for their Fish River Roasters coffee, hot breakfasts and preserves.
These days, it's non-stop hustle and bustle; the sort of place you can stop by for freshly baked lemonade scones on the shady verandah, rub shoulders with Matt Damon, or just stand in the middle of the designer homewares store and buy your way out.
One look at the hand-made millet brooms with Tasmanian oak handles from the Tumut Broom Factory, for instance, and you're a goner – but do check it will fit in the boot of the car first to avoid any unnecessary maritals. Pick up a sandwich for a picnic, or a box of beautifully branded preserves and chutneys, then wander next door to Gino's Fruit and Veg, or the Lickety Splits gelato bar.
The laid-back Jugiong Wine Cellar right next door is a good spot to explore the cool-climate wines of 28 different wineries across Hilltops, Tumbarumba, Canberra and Gundagai. And around the corner and up the hill behind the pub (come on, you need the exercise) is the Pantry's Jam Factory, open for tastings. Big jar of salted caramel, anyone? longtrackpantry.com.au
The Sir George is very much a destination in itself. Photo: Supplied via PR
The pub that's worth a four-hour drive
OK, that estimate of 3 million people on a weekend might be a stretch, but sometimes, says Kate Hufton of The Sir George pub, it sure feels like it. "We can do 600 people for lunch on a Sunday," she says. They queue for spritzes in the darkly painted, cosy front bar, browse the boutique shop for aspirational garden tools and woollen blankets, and spill out of the pub onto the broad terrace.
Hufton and her mother, Liz Prater, bought the imposing 1852 landmark pub from the Sheahan family in 2015, relaunching it in 2017 with head chef Nick Williams tending the Mibrasa Spanish charcoal oven and grill.
It's very much a destination in itself, with cheese tastings in the basement cellar, private whisky bar, games room, playgrounds, and a sourdough bakery installed in a heritage stone building known as "Ben Hall", after the local bushranger.
Williams' menu never forgets it's in a pub, however, running from a good duck liver parfait to fish and chips and his own house-made pork and fennel snags with mash and onion gravy – and, of course, there's a schnitzel (chicken).
Service is cheery, no-fuss and queue-to-order, whether you're in the dining room or outside on long share tables under a frothy lilac canopy of wisteria and perfectly pleached trees (grown so their branches entwine to form a hedge). "Sometimes I'll go into the beer garden and see shearers in their clobber in one corner and businessmen in their suits in another," says Hufton. "That's perfect."
Inspired by the likes of The Pig Restaurants With Rooms in the UK, The Sir George launched luxury accommodation in 2019, with a series of free-standing black barns that fringe the terraced gardens.
Getting a booking at Black Barns is tough (in this case, it was third time lucky), but the minimalist, fashionably monochromatic "barns" are carefully curated with everything you need for a short stay. A small table sits outside for sunny moments, and raw linens and wool throws protect against the evening chill, and breakfast in bed awaits – granola, yoghurt and berry compote, and Sir George sourdough and jams. sirgeorge.com.au
The leaves are glowing with autumn gold in Jugiong. Photo: Dee Kramer/Destination NSW
But wait – why do a road trip?
Because you're not going overseas. Because our regional communities have been doing it tough. Because it's so much fun. And because you can slow down. Breathe. Fish. Eat. Drink. Play I Spy. You know, all the good things.
And you don't save it for the heat of summer. Right now, the mornings are as crisp as a Batlow apple, the leaves are still glowing with autumn gold, and the cool evenings are made for a log fire and a glass of red wine.
The Tumut River Brewing Company offers a 'beer breakfast'. Photo: Guy Williment
If you're the sort of fussy traveller who demands misty hills, pristine streams, cellar doors, apple trees, bushland waterfalls, rail hikes, horse-riding, kayaking, gelato stops and riverside tent or luxury accommodation, you've come to the right place.
▪ Head to the Tumut River Brewing Company for a brewery tour or a "beer breakfast" of hangover roll and cleansing ale. trbc.com.au
▪ Do the Rail Trail, a great 21-kilometre track for running, walking, cycling or just plain mooching along from Tumbarumba to Rosewood.
▪ Visit a Hilltops cellar door for a cool-climate wine tasting – it's hard to go past Grove Estate Wine's The Italian, a blend of barbera, nebbiolo and sangiovese.
▪ Do a tasting of gins made with Australian native botanicals at Pretty Parrot Distilling at the historic Oriental Hotel in Tumut.
▪ Morning coffee is always a highlight on a foodie road trip – head to the Coffee Peddler in Tumut or Gundagai, or Marsden Street General food store in Boorowa to the north.
▪ It's apple season, so pick up a box from a roadside stall at Batlow – and keep an eye out for chestnuts, hazelnuts and blueberries in season.
▪ Insider's tip: "Don't miss the Yarrangobilly Caves," says Juliet Robb of Jugiong's Long Track Pantry. "The drive up through Tumut is stunning at this time of the year, and the thermal pool at the end of the cave walk is amazing – it's always 27 degrees year-round."